"Andrei's the unique NBA player who can dominate a game with his defense," says Jazz assistant Gordie Chiesa, who believes that only two NBA players have the ability to regularly thwart opponents' three-on-one breaks: Kirilenko and Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Though he plays Malone's position, Kirilenko couldn't be more dissimilar from his down-home, tractor-driving predecessor. Unfailingly upbeat—a friend nicknamed him the Joker because his wide grin looked like Jack Nicholson's in Batman—Kirilenko gels his hair in a Beckham-style faux-hawk and has a Russian pop diva wife, Masha, 30, whose song Sakharny (it translates as Sugary) was a huge hit at home last winter. In the background of her video, Andrei flails away at a dance club, a performance that has earned him "much joking," he says, from members of the Russian national team. Explains Kirilenko sheepishly, "I was tired, and it was dark. I just make dance moves."
Kirilenko is the product of athletic genes. His father, Gennady, coached professional soccer and handball teams, while his mother, Olga, played for the national basketball team. He began his pro career as a 15-year-old for the local St. Petersburg team and was drafted by the Jazz with the 19th pick in 1999. He arrived Stateside two years later, and after initially feeling lost in the U.S. and hating Salt Lake, Kirilenko—who describes himself as a homebody who likes to "eat good and sleep good"—grew to appreciate the city's small Russian community and subdued charms.
The feeling is mutual. Kirilenko has become a fan favorite, answering to the nickname AK-47—his initials combined with his uniform number, a nod to the Russian assault rifle—and in many ways becoming the face of the Jazz. After a morning practice last week Kirilenko stuck around for three hours to tape a public-service announcement with Masha for AIDS awareness that will be aired in Russian, film a sequence of 25 trivia questions and answers for a Russian kids show and do a magazine interview. Rather than rush through his obligations, he advised the American producer on the difficulty of the trivia questions ("Russians do not know White Chock-late," he said of a question about Memphis Grizzlies point guard Jason Williams. "Only five percent know OU-en Iverson!"), joked during the filming (told to act serious by the producer, he stared into the camera and said, "Hi, I'm Serious!") and taught a reporter how to say beautiful in Russian (kra-SEE-va-ya).
The player who preceded Kirilenko in the makeshift studio was the other half of the new Jazz tandem, Arroyo, who was doing interviews in Spanish. Starting with his season-opening 18-point, 13-assist performance in a win over the Blazers, he has demonstrated surprising quickness and scoring ability. The 6'2" Arroyo played his college ball at Florida International and spent a year with a pro team in Spain before landing short stints with the Toronto Raptors and the Denver Nuggets in the last two seasons. This is the first time he has played major minutes, and he has made the most of them, averaging 15.5 points and 6.1 assists. (While injured, he has been ably replaced by Spanish import Raul Lopez, 23, yet another heady Utah playmaker.)
Arroyo's hot start, combined with his star turn on the Puerto Rican national team over the summer—he led the squad to an upset victory over Steve Nash and Canada to take the bronze medal in the Olympic regional qualifying tournament—has made him into "a Michael Jordan figure at home," says Jazz p.r. man Kim Turner. "The Puerto Rican media call all the time. They call me, they call him at home. Finally, I had to set up a biweekly conference call. It was just too much."
Multicultural, multinational, multiplying wins; it's easy to see why Utah fans are warming to their team's new incarnation. On Jazzfanz.com, a surprisingly active message board devoted to the team, the tide of opinion is changing. "Watching this new Jazz has been a lot of fun in ways that the old team never was," writes one frequent poster who goes by tatermoog. "With Stockton and Malone there was a predictability, both playwise and gamewise."
Though many of the posts begin with a tribute to their departed heroes, there is a feeling in the air: Change is good. "A group of people would have wanted Stockton and Malone to play until they were 55," says David James, a local news anchor who hosts a Sunday talk-radio show. "But there's also a contingent that feels like, 'We weren't going to get past the first round anyway, so why not change it up?' "
That contingent was easy to identify after the Rockets game. They were the ones who stayed after the victory, filing down to the lower deck to sit and listen as Utah players did courtside interviews broadcast over the PA Upon finishing his, Kirilenko raised his arms to the crowd, eliciting a giant cheer, and then strode off the court into the tunnel, grinning his goofy grin and slapping every hand proffered to him, a new kind of star for a new era in Salt Lake.